Below is a list of frequently asked questions and answers about GMOs and biotechnology, with specific reference to agricultural crops, food security and biosafety issues, sourced from the United States Department of Agriculture and the Biotechnology Industry Organisation (www.bio.org) websites, and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) websites.
It is recommended that those wishing to gain a basic grasp of these issues read through the FAQ’s. If your specific question is not answered below, feel free to post your comment or query on our discussion panel and one of our team of scientists will respond to you directly.
What is Agricultural Biotechnology?
The terms ‘biotechnology’ or ‘agricultural biotechnology’ are defined in different ways by different organisations and people.
The FAO, for example, chooses a broad definition, based on Article 2 of the ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’, which states that biotechnology is "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use."
The term covers a broad range of technologies used in food and agriculture. Agricultural technologies are used for a number of different purposes, such as the genetic improvement of plant varieties and animal populations to increase their yields or efficiency; the characterisation and conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture; plant or animal disease diagnosis; and vaccine development.
Some of these technologies may be applied to all the food and agricultural sectors, such as the use of molecular markers or genetic modification, while others are more sector-specific, such as tissue culture (in crops and forest trees), embryo transfer (livestock) or sex-reversal (fish). Note, the term ‘agriculture’ here includes crop, livestock, fish and forestry products, so the term ‘agricultural biotechnologies’ encompasses their use in any of these sectors.
Agricultural biotechnology is essentially a range of tools, including traditional breeding techniques, that alter living organisms, or parts of organisms, to make or modify products; improve plants or animals; or develop microorganisms for specific agricultural uses. Modern biotechnology today includes the tools of genetic engineering.
What are GMOs?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are those in which one or more genes (called transgenes) have been introduced into its genetic material from another organism using recombinant DNA technology. For example, the genes may be from a different kingdom (such as from a bacterium to a plant) or a different species within the same kingdom (e.g. from one plant species to another).
How is Agricultural Biotechnology used?
Biotechnology provides farmers with tools that can make production cheaper and more manageable. For example, some biotechnology crops can be engineered to tolerate specific herbicides, which make weed control simpler and more efficient. Other crops have been engineered to be resistant to specific plant diseases and insect pests, which can make pest control more reliable and effective, and/or decrease the use of synthetic pesticides. These crop production options can help countries keep pace with demands for food while reducing production costs.
Biotechnology can also be used in the following ways:
- To provide consumers with nutritionally enriched or longer-lasting foods.
- To lower levels of naturally occurring toxins or allergens present in some food plants.
- To increase disease-fighting nutrients in foods.
Genetically engineered plants are also being developed for a purpose known as ‘phytoremediation’ in which the plants detoxify pollutants in the soil, or absorb and accumulate polluting substances out of the soil so that the plants may be harvested and disposed of safely. This improves soil quality at a polluted site.
Biotechnology may also be used to conserve natural resources, enable animals to more effectively use nutrients present in feed, decrease nutrient runoff into rivers and bays, and help meet the increasing world food and land demands.
Researchers are constantly at work to produce hardier crops that will flourish in even the harshest environments and that will require less fuel, labour, fertiliser, and water, helping to decrease the pressures on land and wildlife habitats.
In addition to genetically engineered crops, biotechnology has helped make other improvements in agriculture not involving plants. Examples of such advances include making antibiotic production more efficient through microbial fermentation and producing new animal vaccines through genetic engineering for diseases such as foot and mouth disease and rabies.
What are more specific benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology?
The application of biotechnology in agriculture has resulted in benefits to farmers, producers, and consumers. Biotechnology has helped to make both insect pest control and weed management safer and easier while safeguarding crops against disease.
Reduction of pesticides/herbicides:
Genetically engineered insect-resistant cotton has allowed for a significant reduction in the use of persistent, synthetic pesticides that may contaminate groundwater and the environment.
In terms of improved weed control, herbicide-tolerant soybeans, cotton, and maize enable the use of a safer class of herbicides that break down more quickly in soil and are non-toxic to wildlife and humans. Herbicide-tolerant crops are particularly compatible with no-till or reduced tillage agriculture systems that help preserve topsoil from erosion.
Agricultural biotechnology has been used in many instances to protect crops from devastating diseases. Example: The papaya ringspot virus threatened to derail the Hawaiian papaya industry until papayas resistant to the disease were developed through genetic engineering. This saved the U.S. papaya industry.
Biotech crops can make farming more profitable by increasing crop quality and may in some cases increase yields. The use of some of these crops can simplify work and improve safety for farmers. This allows farmers to spend less of their time managing their crops and more time on other profitable activities.
Biotech crops may provide enhanced quality traits such as increased levels of beta-carotene in rice to aid in reducing vitamin A deficiencies and improved oil compositions in canola, soybean, and maize. Crops with the ability to grow in salty soils or better withstand drought conditions are also in the works and the first such products are just entering the marketplace. Such innovations may be increasingly important in adapting to or in some cases helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The tools of agricultural biotechnology have been invaluable for researchers in helping to understand the basic biology of living organisms. For example, scientists have identified the complete genetic structure of several strains of Listeria and Campylobacter, the bacteria often responsible for major outbreaks of food-borne illness in people. This genetic information is providing a wealth of opportunities that help researchers improve the safety of our food supply. The tools of biotechnology have "unlocked doors" and are also helping in the development of improved animal and plant varieties, both those produced by conventional means as well as those produced through genetic engineering.
Is Agricultural Biotechnology safe?
Yes. It is simply a refinement of breeding techniques that have been used to improve plants for thousands of years. Biotechnology is simply a more precise science, so scientists are able to isolate a specific gene to make exact changes to a crop (for example, to make a corn plant resistant to the corn borer insect.)
Scientists around the world agree that the risks associated with crop plants developed using biotechnology are the same as those for similar varieties developed using traditional breeding methods.
In addition, both international regulating authorities and national agricultural and food and drug administration agencies work tirelessly to ensure that crops produced through genetic engineering for commercial use are properly tested and studied so as to ensure they pose no significant risk to consumers or the environment.
Why are certain groups concerned about the growing influence of the chemical industry on agriculture?
Certain interest groups are concerned about what they consider an undesirably high level of control of seed markets by a few companies. Sustainable agriculture and biodiversity benefit most from the use of a rich variety of crops, both in terms of good crop protection practices as well as from the perspective of society at large and the values attached to food. These groups fear that as a result of the interest of the chemical industry in seed markets, the range of varieties used by farmers may be reduced mainly to GM crops. This would impact on the food basket of a society as well as in the long run on crop protection (for example, with the development of resistance against insect pests and tolerance of certain herbicides). The exclusive use of herbicide-tolerant GM crops would also make the farmer dependent on these chemicals. These groups fear a dominant position of the chemical industry in agricultural development, a trend which they do not consider to be sustainable.
How is a risk assessment for the environment performed?
Environmental risk assessments cover both the GMO concerned and the potential receiving environment. The assessment process includes evaluation of the characteristics of the GMO and its effect and stability in the environment, combined with ecological characteristics of the environment in which the introduction will take place. The assessment also includes unintended effects which could result from the insertion of the new gene. Crops produced through genetic engineering are the only ones formally reviewed to assess the potential for transfer of novel traits to wild relatives.
When new traits are genetically engineered into a crop, the new plants are evaluated to ensure that they do not have risky characteristics. Where biotech crops are grown in proximity to related plants, the potential for the two plants to exchange traits via pollen must be evaluated before release. Crop plants of all kinds can exchange traits with their close wild relatives (which may be weeds or wildflowers) when they are in proximity. In the case of biotech-derived crops, both international and national regulating bodies strive to perform risk assessmentsto evaluate this possibility and minimise potential harmful consequences, if any.
Other potential risks considered in the assessment of genetically engineered organisms include any environmental effects on birds, mammals, insects, worms, and other organisms, especially in the case of insect- or disease resistance traits. Testing on many types of organisms such as honeybees, other beneficial insects, earthworms, and fish is performed to ensure that there are no unintended consequences associated with these crops.
Are crops developed using biotechnology and currently cultivated safe for the environment?
Yes. Extensive scientific evaluation worldwide has not found any examples of ecological damage from biotechnology crops. Current crops designed to resist pests and tolerate herbicides have already cut chemical usage on farms significantly. Herbicide tolerance promotes practices like no-tillage farming that reduces soil erosion, prevents water loss, and even limits release of greenhouse gases.
Can agricultural biotechnologies help smallholder farmers in developing countries?
There have been numerous case studies showing how agricultural biotechnologies have assisted and aided smallholder farmers.
- New Rice for Africa (NERICA) varieties have been developed using biotechnologies that enable crossing of two species of cultivated rice, African rice and Asian rice. These NERICA varieties combine the high yields from the Asian rice with the ability of the African rice to thrive in harsh environments and are grown on about 200,000 hectares of upland areas annually in sub-Saharan Africa.
- In the Satkhira and Chittagong districts of Bangladesh, the use of artificial insemination to raise milk yields of dairy cattle has increased incomes and employment for smallholders in community-based programmes.
- In India, the use of DNA-based methods to detect pathogens was a key component of better management practices that were applied for small-scale shrimp farmers in Andhra Pradesh and which led to significant improvement in profits and reduced shrimp disease risks for farmers.
- DNA-based tools have been applied to improve traditional fermentation-based food/drink production systems to create homegrown industries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Biotechnologies have also played a vital role in the diagnosis and surveillance of rinderpest, contributing to the eradication of this infectious viral disease of cattle, buffalo, yak and numerous wildlife species that has caused devastating effects throughout history. This is only the second time that a disease has been eradicated worldwide, following smallpox in humans.
However, it must be underlined that no biotechnology or biotechnology product can ensure success on its own. The ability of agricultural biotechnologies to help smallholder farmers also depends on a range of other factors such as government policies and access of the farmers to extension services, agricultural inputs, credit and markets.
Do farmers use more pesticides when they grow biotech crops?
No. In fact, biotech crops have helped reduce pesticide spraying in the United States, for example. Between 1996 and 2008 352 million kg less peticides were used in the US than in previous years. In addition, herbicide tolerant biotech crops have led to the adoption of no/reduced tillage production systems. This has reduced soil erosion and improved soil moisture levels.
Do biotech crops “contaminate” other crops?
No. The fact is, nature has used pollen to carry genes between plants for hundreds of millions of years.
Can agriculture biotechnology help feed a growing global population?
Yes. Agricultural biotechnology can be a key element in the fight against hunger and malnutrition in the developing world.
According to the FAO, feeding a world population of 9.1 billion in 2050 will require raising overall food production by 70 percent (nearly 100 percent in developing countries). To meet this challenge, farmers will need to find ways to grow more food more sustainably.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, along with the Royal Society of London, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences and the The World Academy of Sciences issued a report discussing the role of biotechnology in meeting global food needs. It concluded:
“GM technology, coupled with important developments in other areas, should be used to increase the production of main food staples, improve the efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and provide access to food for small-scale farmers.”
Are the products of agricultural biotechnology regulated?
Regulation depends on the country in question. In the US and Europe these products are very stringently regulated. Southern Africa requires more cohesive regulation policies. The responsibility for formulating policies and making decisions lies with the individual governments. Advice and assistance from bodies such as the WHO and FAO can also be requested by member countries.
Are GMO crops safe for consumption and as safe to eat as foods produced using conventional crops?
Biotech crops have been cultivated for more than 18 years (since 1996), and foods derived from agricultural biotechnology have been eaten by billions of people without documented health problems. Federal regulatory agencies ensure the safety of biotechnology foods, and biotech plants and foods are among the most tested in history. The world’s most respected ultimate scientific authorities, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have concluded that foods with biotech-derived ingredients pose no more risk to people than any other foods.
With respect to food safety, when new traits are introduced into biotech-derived plants they are closely studied to check for potential toxicity and potential to cause an allergic response.
Safety assessments of GM foods generally investigate:
(a) Direct health effects (toxicity)
(b) Tendencies to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity)
(c) Specific components thought to have nutritional or toxic properties
(d) Stability of the inserted gene
(e) Nutritional effects associated with genetic modification
(f) Any unintended effects that could result from the gene insertion
Tests designed to examine the heat and digestive stability of these proteins, as well as their similarity to known allergenic proteins, are completed prior to entry into the food or feed supply. To put these considerations in perspective, it is useful to note that while the particular biotech traits being used are often new to crops in that they often do not come from plants (many are from bacteria and viruses), the same basic types of traits often can be found naturally in most plants. These basic traits, like insect and disease resistance, have allowed plants to survive and evolve over time.
That said, different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways. This means that individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.
Are products found on the international market regulated and have they passed risk assessment?
Yes. GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments by most respected regulatory bodies and are not likely to present risks for human health. No ill effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods (by the general population) in the countries where these foods have been approved. Continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles and, where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM.
Different assessments in general follow the same basic principles, including an assessment of environmental and human health risk. These assessments are thorough and stringent, indicating that products do not pose any risk to human health.
Are GM foods assessed differently from traditional foods?
Consumers tend to think of traditionally cultivated foods (that have often been eaten for thousands of years) as safe. The irony is that many of these have also been created through genetic intervention. When new foods are developed by natural methods, some of the existing characteristics of foods can be altered, either in a positive or a negative way. National food authorities may be called upon to examine traditional foods, but this is not always the case. Indeed, new plants developed through traditional breeding techniques may not be evaluated rigorously using risk assessment techniques.
With GM foods most national authorities consider that specific assessments are necessary. Specific systems have been set up for the rigorous evaluation of GM organisms and GM foods relative to both human health and the environment. Similar evaluations are generally not performed for traditional foods. Hence there is a significant difference in the evaluation process prior to marketing for these two groups of food.
What kinds of GM foods are on the market internationally?
All GM crops available on the international market today have been designed using one of three basic traits: resistance to insect damage; resistance to viral infections; and tolerance towards certain herbicides. All the genes used to modify crops are derived from microorganisms. The most common GM foods include soya and maize derived products, certain varieties of rice and some wheat products, as well as various fruits and vegetables. Though not a food source, cotton is another common genetically modified agricultural crop.
How are GM foods regulated nationally?
The way governments regulate GM foods varies. In some countries GM foods are not yet regulated. Countries which have legislation in place focus primarily on assessment of risks for consumer health. Countries which have provisions for GM foods usually also regulate GMOs in general, taking into account health and environmental risks, as well as control- and trade-related issues (such as potential testing and labelling regimes). In view of the dynamics of the debate on GM foods, legislation is likely to continue to evolve. In the SADC the creation of cohesive and cooperative regulatory policies is of utmost concern.
Do biotech foods cause allergies?
To date, no allergic reactions have been attributed to any food product of biotechnology. Every crop produced through biotechnology is screened in advance for its potential to cause allergic reactions, and none have demonstrated any potential to be allergenic. In fact, advanced techniques are being used to remove allergens from certain foods.
What is the state of public debate on GM foods internationally?
The release of GMOs into the environment and the marketing of GM foods have resulted in a public debate in many parts of the world. This debate is likely to continue, probably in the broader context of other uses of biotechnology (e.g. in human medicine) and their consequences for human societies. Even though the issues under debate are usually very similar (costs and benefits, safety issues), the outcome of the debate differs from country to country. On issues such as labelling and traceability of GM foods as a way to address consumer concerns, there is no consensus to date.
Are people’s reactions related to the different attitudes to food in various regions of the world?
Depending on the region of the world, people often have different attitudes to food. In addition to nutritional value, food often has societal and historical connotations, and in some instances may have religious importance. Technological modification of food and food production can evoke a negative response among consumers, especially in the absence of good communication on risk assessment efforts and cost/benefit evaluations.